Restoring the currency of the brand

17 May 2010|Added Value


There are probably few words which have been more devalued, certainly in marketing circles. You hear it everywhere, all the time. Somehow everything’s a brand now, from Katie Price and Victoria Beckham to and FC Bayern München.

But the expansive use of the term doesn’t really seem to do it lot of good.  The brand has taken a back seat. It is still considered important, but there’s always something else with an even higher priority.  We live in an age of urgency. And with all this rush we sometimes lose sight of what matters most. And, in a world where anything can become a brand, it feels like a good time to ask ourselves what do we really mean by the term, brand?

Fortunately, marketeers still think brand matters. In a recent survey among our clients in Germany 60% saw the topic ‘brand’ as increasing in importance in the foreseeable future. Good. But we still had some doubts about whether everything was working perfectly in brand-land.

So we had a look at our databases. True, many brands are still thriving and getting stronger. Triple A-candidates like Audi, Apple or Adidas. But on the other hand, we couldn’t help registering that many brands are on a rather unfortunate course.

  1. Consumers perception of them is becoming less clear and more blurred
  2. They’re losing uniqueness
  3. They’re losing relevance

So what’s happening here?

Well, managing a brand has become quite a bit more challenging than, say, 10 years ago. The world around us has become more complex with a cluttered and increasingly digital media-landscape. But not all factors are beyond our control.  Some are self-inflicted: brand portfolios getting out of hand, would-be innovations and me-too-line extensions, over-perfected, sterile brand personalities or over the top-brand-promises, like financial services brands that promise to make us happy or candies which include more vitamins than fruits or vegetables.

However, lamenting these facts doesn’t help. And turning back the clock won’t work either. We have to live with a brand-world which is increasingly populated, where everybody’s treading on each other’s toes. Times of great discoveries of new territories are also over. The big white spots have largely disappeared. Today you might still find some unexplored niche-islands, but unless there’s break-through innovation, new places with lots of demand and hardly any offer to address it are few and rare.

Today, if you want to differentiate (and you’d better want that), it’s not so much about doing things differently than the competition. It’s more about executing your strategy better. Getting the details right. Being spot on in terms of local culture. Detecting emerging cultural understanding of your positioning criteria before others do.

Not too long ago, BMW was the only strong brand in the car market focusing on sportiness, expressed by its “Ultimate Driving Machine” slogan. Today, almost every car brand wants to be sporty and dynamic (well, lately the fashion is more about carbon footprint and an environmental conscience, but the challenges here are basically the same as with sportiness. Everybody tries to do things in almost the same way).

This is not so much a problem for BMW, who have a historical advantage here and try hard to stay cutting edge, but, leaving Audi out of the equation for now, who else has really made progress?  Generic interpretations and executions of big topics change nothing. And if you say: “It’s not my problem, I’m not in the car-business,” just think for a minute. You’ll find the same phenomenon in almost every market. Whether it’s “security” for insurance companies, “tasty convenience” for ready to cook-meals or a “healthy mouth” for toothpaste., most positioning territories aren’t that original or unique anymore.

So, we should seriously question the way we manage and direct brands today. Will the old approaches still suffice?  And hoping that going digital and connecting with social communities will fix things is a little too much wishful thinking. An undifferentiating brand proposition remains an undifferentiating brand proposition, whether it’s digital or not. Plus, only a small minority will take the time to actively gather information about chocolate bars, fabric softener or check accounts via the internet in blogs and communities.

In other words, whatever you do, it has to be quick, self-explanatory, attractive and ideally highly infectious. A positive virus so-to-speak. And how do you find one? Certainly not by mainly dealing with yourself. If you constantly looking at your feet while running, you’ll have a hard time seeing where you are going.

The magic word is insight. Sounds like the oldest story in the book? Well, maybe at first glance. But on the one hand insight goes beyond “information”; it’s like a “spark in the dark” or “a flash of genius”. How many of those did you have recently regarding your brand or your markets? There you go. On the other hand, good, old consumer insight doesn’t suffice. What we need is an alliance of insight, a combination of brand insight, consumer insight and cultural insight.

If you think this sounds like the rather obvious attempt of someone who’s in the insight business to talk relevance into what he does – hang on for a second.

One can hardly argue that in today’s world it has become more and more difficult to come up with new ideas. And most of the time the competition soon catches up with you. Nowadays it’s often less important to have the best idea, but rather to be the first to put it into action. Down to the last detail. Minor flaws can have a major effect. Often it’s about nuances. And with this fineness of granularity, it doesn’t suffice to rely on a rough or one-dimensional insight.

Let’s start with consumer insight.  For your “big idea” you need a new, fresh perspective on the brand or category. And although this may sound like a no-brainer, it’s often where problems start. Too many things are done because they can be done technically, because somebody else has done something similar or because it is a logical thought – without any consumer insight behind it.

But let’s suppose you have that real consumer insight. This alone won’t guarantee success, unless you execute it in a way appropriate or even tailored to your brand. Content-, character- and iconography-wise. Better know what makes your brand tick, what’s driving it, what works and what doesn’t – for all this you need brand insight.

But even now, when you already have your consumer-insight and know how to bring it to life in a brand-appropriate way, you’re not there yet. Let’s go back to the sportiness example and BMW. If you’re the icon of sportiness in cars, you have to lead the way. A generic interpretation of sportiness puts your leadership at risk. You have to be at the pulse of what’s going on. You don’t just have to be up to the times, you have to stay ahead of the game. You need to have the feel for what’s coming, how culture will interpret sportiness tomorrow, not just today. In a way, you could start to define what sportiness in cars means tomorrow. (Yes, and how you can combine it with an environmental conscience.) Can consumers tell you that? Hardly. For this you need cultural insight. Understanding the different meanings and manifestations of sportiness. Today and tomorrow. Getting the details right and being future-proof.

Consumer Insight, Brand Insight & Cultural Insight? It may sound complex. It may sound like a lot. And true: not all of our clients do things this way. But there’s a few. And they are getting more bottom line out of their brand.

Written by Christoph Prox, CEO Icon Added Value, Germany

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